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ULA aims for launch of new Vulcan rocket at end of 2021

United Launch Alliance plans to launch its new Vulcan rocket, as shown in an artist's rendering, late in 2021. Image courtesy of United Launch Alliance
United Launch Alliance plans to launch its new Vulcan rocket, as shown in an artist's rendering, late in 2021. Image courtesy of United Launch Alliance

ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 17 (UPI) -- United Launch Alliance, which has been a launch provider to the U.S. government for 14 years, plans to send its new Vulcan rocket aloft by late 2021, CEO Tory Bruno said Thursday.

The company had been aiming for the first Vulcan launch in mid-2021, but the timeline slipped for the first mission -- the Peregrine lunar rover being builkt by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, Bruno said.

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"This is Astrobotic's first spacecraft, and they need to get it just right. And so that's when they will be ready," Bruno said.

The Peregrine mission is to help prepare for a 2024 crewed landing in NASA's Artemis program. Astrobotic has a fixed-price contract with NASA for $79.5 million for the first Peregrine mission, which will have 11 experiments or payloads for the space agency.

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Vulcan is intended to provide a more efficient, more powerful launch vehicle than ULA's workhorse rockets, Atlas and Delta, and have engines produced in the United States. The company previously bought Russian rocket engines, which Congress outlawed in 2014.

Components of the new Vulcan system have been tested in Atlas rockets. Bruno said that ongoing testing of the new components means shortened test time for the full Vulcan system once it is assembled later next year.

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ULA has lined up plenty of work for Vulcan. The U.S. government awarded the company more than $500 million in launch contracts in August for national security missions from 2022 to 2026.

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Elon Musk's SpaceX also won contracts for that period, a little less than half of the six dozen missions planned. Many of those launches will be from Florida.

The Vulcan rocket, assembled in Decatur, Ala., would provide between 1.1 million pounds of thrust and 3.4 million pounds of thrust depending on the configuration, starting with two BE-4 engines.

"Decatur is hopping," Bruno said Thursday. "We have 31 rocket stages in flow right now, so it is a very, very busy rocket factory. We've got the Delta four cores. We've got Vulcan in flow and we still have Atlas in flow."

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Vulcan's thrust compares to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket with 1.7 million pounds of thrust on liftoff, and the Falcon Heavy at over 5 million pounds of thrust.

The government has committed $967 million to ULA through 2024 for the development of the rocket. ULA is funding three-quarters of the rocket development budget, Bruno said.

ULA has additional customers signed up for Vulcan launches, including California-based Sierra Nevada, which has developed the new Dreamchaser spaceplane to launch cargo to the space station.

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ULA launched six missions in 2020, and plans 10 launches for 2021, Bruno said. Upcoming launches include one that would send astronauts to the International Space Station in a new Boeing Starliner capsule over the summer. But that spacecraft will undergo testing before a crewed launch is possible.

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